Meet The New Homophobia; Different Than The Old Homophobia

The most thought provoking article I've read in some time on the topic of homosexuality is a recent post in the online magazine Slate by William Saletan titled "Sexual Reorientation: The Gay Culture War Is About To Turn Chemical". Though I recommend that people read this article for themselves, here is the argument in nutshell form.

1. An ever increasing amount of evidence shows that homosexual desire (and heterosexual desire for that mater) is motivated primarily by biological factors such as differences in the way the brain is physically structured

2. Activists, seizing on this evidence, have argued that because it is almost certainly the case that the majority of homosexually oriented people are born, not recruited, it should follow that the old "moral" prejudices against homosexuality should fall away.

3. Saletan argues, however, that the prejudice will not go away, but merely change its shape. Homophobics will no longer argue that homosexuality is a moral problem, but instead come to look at it as a biological defect which should be treated medically with increasingly sophisticated and early-life interventions including genetic screening, manipulations of the intrauterine hormonal environment during pregnancy and similar techniques.

I dearly hope Saletan's argument is wrong, but I kinda think he's on to something. Homophobia is deeply ingrained into the culture we live in. Some people saddled with homophobic prejudices will surely leap at the opportunity to actually manipulate the structure of the developing brain so as to prevent the occurrence of the "gay disease". It isn't possible to do that just yet, but the writing is now on the wall, and it appears only a matter of time and will (and the willing suspension of ethical precepts that would prevent messing with developing fetuses) before such treatments are medically possible.

In order to talk about the shape such treatments might take, we need to unpack the biological processes and structures that recent studies are suggesting shape sexual desire. In the last week or so, two interesting studies have addressed this topic.

The first study, titled "PET and MRI show differences in cerebral asymmetry and functional connectivity between homo- and heterosexual subjects", by Ivanka Savic and Per Lindstrom and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences used brain scans to examine differences in brain structures between groups of heterosexual and homosexual subjects and found a most interesting pattern which can be boiled down to this: Aspects of gay male subjects' brains were more similar to those of straight females than to straight males. Vice versa, aspects of gay females' brains were more similar to straight males than to straight females. The amygdala, a sub-cortical structure (meaning one of the evolutionarily older parts of the brain) known to be a center of emotional responding, followed this pattern, as did other parts of the brain playing important roles in judgment and language processing such as cortical hemispheric asymetries (whether the two sides of the outer brain are the same size or not).  Regarding cortical asymetries, the normal case is that women tend to have similarly sized brain halves, while in men, the right side of the brain (important for non-verbal spatial processing) is in most cases larger than the left side of the brain which tends to be more important for language skills. 

Though the brain does grow throughout childhood and adolescence, the relative shapes and sizes of these various brain components do not change much, according to researchers who are in a position to know. The conclusion is that when these areas are differently shaped, that shaping largely occurred while the brain was being formed during pregnancy.

Though many forces contribute to shaping the brain during its development, the role of genetics and maternal hormones is large in this regard. Genes provide the basic blueprints for building the brain, while hormones including the sexual hormones testosterone and estrogen play a switching role during the developmental process, turning on and off at the appropriate times different sequences of genetic instruction. Exactly what pattern of genetics and/or hormones is responsible for structuring someone's brain into a heterosexual mold or a homosexual mold is not know yet and remains a topic of active study.

Another new study recently released speaks directly to this issue of which is more important, genes or hormones in shaping homosexuality. The answer according to the study authors is that, at least with regard to homosexual men, the evidence points to a genetic role.

In "Sexually Antagonistic Selection in Human Male Homosexuality", published in PloS One on June 18th, 2008, Andrea Camperio Ciani, Paolo Cermelli and Giovanni Zanzotto argue that there is a simple evolutionary explanation that helps make sense of the following and established observations:

  1. that homosexuality has been a low frequency but constant feature of all studied human societies
  2. that male homosexuality tends to run in the family on the maternal line of homosexual men.
  3. that the mothers of homosexual men tend to end up having more children on average than similar mothers with all heterosexual children, and
  4. that the close female relatives of mothers of homosexual men also tend to have more children on average than the female relatives of fathers of homosexual men.

The explanation, descriptively named sexually antagonistic selection, suggests that there is a gene or cluster of genes that is inherited through the maternal line. This same gene or cluster of genes is responsible for enhancing female fertility and for producing some minority of male offspring who become homosexually oriented. Though many homosexual men might not choose to reproduce (or find themselves in a life circumstance where this failure to reproduce happens as a matter of course) and would not pass this gene on to future generations, the gene persists because of the enhanced fertility advantage it confers to female who have it. The extra children these women end up producing, most of whom end up heterosexual and motivated to reproduce, more than offset the loss of homosexually orientated children's relative lack of reproductive motivation.

For more on this study, check out these good analyses in Slate, and in ThinkGene.

This explanation does not fit what is known about female homosexually oriented people, and thus a genetic explanation of lesbianism is not supported by the data. In the absence of a genetic explanation, the hormonal explanation would seem more likely at present as a primary cause of sexual orientation.

If there is a "gay gene", at least with regard to males, you can be sure that it will be identified within a few years from now. If homosexuality is influenced by maternal hormones, you can similarly be sure that we will know what those homones are and in what doses they do their thing in short order.  And then what? A quote from the Sexual Reorientation article makes the point explicitly clear:

Would hormonal intervention work in humans? Should we try it? Some thinkers are intrigued. Last year, the Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote: "If a biological basis is found, and if a prenatal test is then developed, and if a successful treatment to reverse the sexual orientation to heterosexual is ever developed, we would support its use." Mohler told the Associated Press that morally, this would be no different from curing fetal blindness or any other "medical problem". The Rev. Joseph Fessio, editor of the press that publishes the pope's work, agreed: "Same-sex activity is considered disordered. If there are ways of detecting diseases or disorders of children in the womb … that respected the dignity of the child and mother, it would be a wonderful advancement of science."

It is already possible to do pre-implantation genetic testing (commonly known as PGD) on fertilized embryos scheduled for in-vitro fertilization. Some reproductive medicine specialists regard PGD, only half jokingly, as the future of all human reproduction. In PGD, a cell is plucked off of the not-yet-implanted developing embryo, and the chromosomes are extracted from that cell and fed through a set of tests that scans them for markers indicating the presence of genes associated with undesirable medical conditions. If a particular embryo is found to be defective, it gets discarded rather than implanted or frozen for later implantation. PGD is currently an expensive procedure but one widely available to infertile couples who do not want to risk the possibility of an disease-prone baby. What, other than the ethics of the reproductive doctors themselves and the cost involved will prevent the use of PGD and similar techniques by homophobic parents to identify and discard male embryos who might ultimately turn out to be gay before they can be implanted?

Lesbians should not feel any safer than gay men. Control over maternal hormones during pregnancy is also a highly developed aspect of reproductive medicine. Normal female reproductive hormones cycles are routinely suppressed and artificially regulated during the course of in-vitro fertilization. Almost complete control is taken over the hormonal systems that induce women's eggs to grow and be released into the fallopian tubes. It requires only a short stretch of the imagination to visualize a day not very far in the future when the hormonal patterns that lead towards homosexuality are well known and can be suppressed or "corrected" so as to produce a more "well adjusted" child.

I don't mean to be alarmist and hope that I don't come across that way. The enormous expense of PGD and assisted reproduction alone will ensure that only the most motivated and wealthy parents will ever be able (in the foreseeable future) to avail themselves of technologies capable of suppressing nature's plan for each child. Attractive though the idea of genetic purity is to some people, in practice it will be very expensive to achieve a Gattaca style world. There is also the encouraging fact that the (American) population appears to be becoming progressively more tolerant of homosexuality as a normal part of life. For every American that finds a way to cling to their prejudice, it seems that several others are laying theirs down.

It may seem odd that I'm spending so much time on what seems to be a cultural or neuroscience issue when this is a mental health website. To my mind, however, negative cultural attitudes towards homosexuality are very much a mental health issue inasmuch as it ends up being internalized as shame and self-depreciating beliefs that help to promote depression and unhappiness and in some prominent cases, the compulsive desire to persecute other homosexuals as a method for denying one's own homosexuality. On this latter subject, re-watch the excellent 1999 movie American Beauty, or read between the lines in accounts of the lives of Roy Cohn or Senator Larry Craig. The social emotion shame and the various ways that people internalize negative societal attitudes such that they become embarrassed and ashamed, and begin to persecute and harshly judge themselves is a hugely important contributer to many people's depression, and one that is seriously under-estimated in terms of how important it is. We can only hope, in this regard, that as time passes the culture at large will continue to become more accepting and less uptight regarding homosexuality; that Saletan is right for some but misjudged the larger popular opinion. Nobody deserves to feel like they are damaged goods simply because of who they, as one consenting adult engaged with another consenting adult, choose to sleep with.

  • JR

    I am irresistably reminded of Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel, "Brave New World", which is set in a monstrous dystopic future society in which, among other things, a strict caste structure (ranging from Alphas at the top, down to Epsilon Semi-Morons at the bottom) is maintained by restricting all human reproduction to a conditioned industrial process that takes place mainly within containers resembling nothing so much as pickle jars. So, at least as an idea, nothing new there, then.

    There never has been an ultimate weapon so terrible that nobody would dare use it. (Alfred Nobel apparently thought that his invention, Dynamite, would be such a weapon - I think he might have been wrong.) Likewise for other areas of human endeavour. As far as medical/diagnostic processes are concerned, the willingness of some people at least to use relatively simple processes like gender prediction in utero in order to facilitate the abortion of unwanted potential girl-children purely on a gender basis (and the willingness of at least some "professionals" to facilitate this) indicates a poor look-out for those hoping that the future employment of PGD technology will be entirely benign and ethical. Ethics are really all that stand between us and some "brave new world" at some stage. One might be less than hopeful.

    So, if homosexuality is to be programmed out of existence, so to speak, at source, who decides ? Parents ? Churches ? The State ? Is it moral or ethical for anybody to make such decisions, not only for individuals yet unborn, but for the future of humankind ? Perhaps we need to be alarmed - and watchful. The type of process prefigured here may be less terrible than one already practiced in this area - the one that involved living adults, pink triangles, concentration camps and gas chambers but, given the implications of such a use of medical technology going way beyond this immediate area of concern, I am not so sure.

    One further comment - if it is demonstrated that homosexual orientation is substantially a matter of biology, this would appear to pose a question for religious leaders rather different from the one that some seem so anxious to answer. Is it really a question of whether they would support the use of technology to annihilate homosexuality - or should they not be asking themselves whether, if the homosexual orientation is biologically-based, where does this leave the argument that it is somehow "unnatural" in the eyes of God or (to put it in a more Buddhist way) whether homosexual conduct per se should be viewed as "misconduct" ? I am not sure, however, whether they will generally see it that way. More likely, they tend towards expanding in a particular direction on the words put in the mouth of a fictionalised Bishop of Carlisle by Shakespeare (in "Richard II") -

    "The means that Heaven yields must be embrac'd,/And not neglected else, if heaven would,/And we will not, heaven's offer we refuse/The proferr'd means of succour and redress."

    Quite. It would appear desireable, however, to determine first whether the ends to which potentially good and useful technologies are applied are appropriate, moral, ethical - or even safe.

    Sorry for the long post. As to my interest, I hope you will not mind me saying that I am not Gay myself, but I am concerned about this as an issue of human integrity and human rights.

    Best regards,


  • Samuel Lopez De Victoria, Ph.D.

    I am against abuse of any human being, gay or straight.

    Over the years, I have found that as the Gay lobby has gotten politically entrenched (in the media, at the American Psychological Association, etc.), there has been a lashing out towards anyone daring to ask questions about their current thinking processes or even making comments that slightly might resemble the traditional role of males.

    If a gay person chooses to want help on being straight, the American Psychological Association will totally ignore him/her and abandon him/her, often subtly trashing the thought of that remote possibility and labeling any therapy out there on this subject as "dangerous"! In the APA code of ethics we are encouraged to believe that it is wrong to deny treatement of any human being. On this one they look the other way and break their own ethics statements.

    I know of a former doctoral student that was doing research on masculinity only to get lambasted by a pro-gay psychology department chairman of a known university. The chair never asked questions, jumped to conclusions, trashed the individual as "archaic and backward" simply because he said he wanted to help "men to get in touch with their masculinity."

    There is also the example on public record of the APA threatening to pull APA accreditation from religious psychology grad schools simply because they did not agree with the APA's stance on homosexuality. It took Congressmen to threaten the APA of their CHEA (Dept. of Ed.) accreditation that gives them delegated accrediting powers. This scared the APA so they promptly made up the excuse that they never meant to threaten the schools. Yeah, right! Can this be called heterophobia? You bet!

    If anyone wants to be gay it is their life. If anyone is heterosexual that is also their life. It just seems that the pendulum is swinging the opposite direction with the politics being controled by a few and persecuting the majority. It is almost like you have to be ashamed that you are heterosexual for fear of being called "homophobic!"

    Samuel Lopez De Victoria, Ph.D.

  • JR

    Hmmm ... the idea that I was a member of an Oppressed Majority had not really occurred to me.

    Of course, people in distress should have the option of appropriate treatment to address their distress - provided that this treatment is really appropriate and helpful. One thing that worries me a bit about this response is that it suggests that this issue is becoming, at some level, politicised, and that this could actually get in the way of individuals being assessed and (in whatever way) treated from a reasonably impartial, professional standpoint.

    Thinking of the notion of people being "cured" of homosexuality, I am reminded of a quote from the novel, "Puckoon", by the late, great (but less than politically correct) Hiberno-English comedian, Spike Milligan -

    "Lord Barrington himself was a devout Catholic and a practicing homosexual as he frequently said, "practice makes perfect".

    Well, I appear to have been "cured" of Catholicism - with no hard feelings -so, I suppose, anything is possible. Or, then again, maybe not.

    Best regards,


    Editor's Note: The issue of treatment for homosexuality is very contentious. It wasn't long ago that the establishment viewed homosexuality as a disorder in need of a cure. Though the establishment position is now that homosexuality is a variation of normal sexuality, there are still a few practitioners who hold to the old ways and suggest they can "convert" people back to a "proper" heterosexual orientation. I'm not aware of any success that such practitioners have enjoyed.

    Many disorders within DSM are defined in such a way as to require that the person experiencing them (or people around them) are being caused pain and suffering as a result of their symptoms. So, I don't see a problem with someone who is homosexual and in pain about that sexual orientation being labeled as suffering a clinical problem. The question remains, is that problem an instance of something wrong with that person e.g., the cause of their homosexuality whatever that might be, or is that problem an instance of a rigidity within society that cannot accept this homosexual person as just another normal soul, for whatever reason. For myself and most mental health practitioners today, it is the latter that is true, more than the former. The issue of shame - people who feel the need to shame other people who don't or can't conform to certain standards, and the people who end up being the target of that shame who internalize that shame and who end up hating themselves on that account - is where the action is at, I think.

  • Anonymous-1

    Perhaps the respectful editor may want to consider that he may not be aware of numbers of therapists treating homosexuals on becoming "straight" and also the results because he may be getting "filtered" and dogma conditioned information from his sources. Therapists who do this kind of work suffer shaming and potential professional scourges.

    A recent APA symposium brought some of these issues to the forefront. The link is:

    Editor's Note: Thanks for contributing this. I was not aware of the NARTH's existiance before. People interested in this issue might profitably check out NARTH's website. The organization appears to be a conservatively oriented professional advocacy group promoting psychologists' ability to offer sexuality reorientation therapies to clients who want them. To quote from the article:

    Wright and Cummings, along with an Academy-Award roster of prominent mental health professionals, conclude that "psychology, psychiatry, and social work have been captured by an ultra-liberal agenda." "Misguided political correctness tethers our intellects," they observe, and "if psychology is to soar like an eagle, it needs both a left wing and a right wing."

    The point about shame the anonymous commenter makes is an odd and seemingly quite biased one, to my mind, because this is in essence a fight over who is persecuting who. These NARTH therapists are feeling shamed by the currently dominant ethical views over at APA which tells them that this sexuality reorientation work is morally wrong to do, but the whole point of where the APA is coming from is that the assumption that homosexuality is somehow morally wrong is in itself an exercise in shaming - but of patients, not therapists. This is almost funny to my mind, then: Here is a group of therapists who are feeling ashamed of their actions which promote the idea that another group of people should feel ashamed of themselves. They want permission to not feel ashamed about taking actions which have great potential to become intrinsically shaming to other people.

    For myself, I'm not opposed to people who are deeply troubled being able to choose to gain access to a reorientation therapy, at least in so far as one can be shown to work (the NARTH website makes repeated references to research suggesting this sort of therapy can work, but nothing specific is linked to - can anyone point to actual peer reviewed studies addressing this topic?) I'm also not insensitive to the idea that there are influences beyond pure biology that affect sexuality. What I object to is any promotion of the idea that homosexuality is somehow less "moral" than heterosexuality. In my experience, people who make moral arguments of this sort are really hiding behind the mantle of morality in order to promote religious or political committments they happen to personally hold.